Free Pussy Riot!

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I’ve never much liked the punk-anarchistic aesthetic-ideology, mostly because it defines itself almost entirely negatively, in opposition to traditional norms of art and society, and so inadvertently comes to mirror the rigidity of the most overbearing applications of those norms. Punk music, for instance, is most easily identified by its adamant rejection – in contrast to mere ignorance – of traditional musical norms (related to melody, harmony, virtuosity, etc.), while its positive political agenda – when it has one – is, at best, vague, utopian, and intentionally unorganized. All of these weaknesses are clearly on display in the HBO documentary, airing this month, on the Russian feminist performance-art “collective” known as Pussy Riot. But watching “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” managed to convince me that, at least in some situations (such as Putin’s Russia), the punk aesthetic can be put to very good use. For, using a minimalist style almost devoid of commentary, the documentary effectively shows how Pussy Riot’s quickly aborted performance in a Russian Orthodox cathedral precipitated an incredible over-reaction, throwing into stark relief the repressive, authoritarian tendencies of the Putin administration – tendencies that unfortunately seem to be reflected in the post-Soviet society at large.

Two of Pussy Riot’s members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – are still serving 2-year sentences in penal colonies. No one, and no thing, was physically harmed by their performance; at worst, as their defense attorney suggests, they should have been charged with misdemeanors. Unfortunately, their chosen setting allowed them to be charged with a hate crime – even though they explicitly denied being motivated by hatred, apologized for offending anyone, and insisted that they are not even anti-religious, but were rather protesting the political connections between the Church and the Putin administration. Here’s the (very brief) trailer-

The repressive over-reaction continues. The BBC reported yesterday that the Russian Duma voted unanimously to criminalize providing information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to persons under 18, and the lower house also passed a bill criminalizing those who “offend religious believers”-

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, has passed a law imposing heavy fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. The measure was passed unanimously and will become law when approved by the upper house and President Vladimir Putin, a virtual formality. … The lower house also passed a bill imposing up to three years in jail on those who offend religious believers. The law comes in the wake of the imprisoning of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. … The new law on “offending religious feelings of the faithful” will also take effect after approval by the upper house and the president.

Thank God – or at least The Founders – that we have free speech in this country. But Americans should bear in mind that the sorts of tendencies on display in Russia today are not that far removed from those displayed by some members of the religious right wing of the “Tea Party” movement right here at home.

Who Vouches For The Vouchers?

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As the Republicans put their finishing touches on Wisconsin’s next budget, including a modest but still significant expansion of the state’s school voucher program, The Oshkosh Northwestern today offers an article in which questions are raised about the credibility of a study purporting to show that schools financed by vouchers feature a higher graduation rate than public schools-

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators are using research paid for by the same special interest groups that support many GOP candidates to push for a statewide expansion of the school voucher program, campaign finance reports show. The study cited by Republicans has come under fire by researchers who say it doesn’t meet academic standards or provide proof that the school voucher program provides a better learning experience for students. Republican lawmakers pushing the expansion have been citing research that claims students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program graduate and attend college at higher rates than their public school counterparts. The research conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas is paid for primarily by special interest groups that also donate to politicians pushing for the voucher expansion.

Now, if the article had only pointed out the funding connection, it would be committing an ad hominem fallacy, since pointing out that the researchers have a partisan funding source does not in itself constitute an objection to the study. But the article goes further, pointing out some of the study’s apparent flaws-

Critics say the study showing voucher students are 4 percent to 7 percent more likely to graduate is essentially useless because:

• More than 56 percent of students it tracked didn’t stay in the voucher program for the length of the four-year study;

• Wolf, the lead researcher for the school choice project, used looser statistical standards in some cases than commonly accepted for academic studies of this type;

• Students were matched on certain demographic data rather than randomly assigned, meaning researchers could have missed a key factor that could have significantly altered the study’s results.

For more details, read the whole article.

Even if the study’s conclusion turns out to be true, questions would remain about what such a fact might prove. For instance, suppose that children who spend several years in voucher schools do in fact graduate at higher rates. Would this show that the schools themselves are responsible for that fact? Not really. After all, parents who go to the trouble of enrolling their children in voucher schools might generally provide more educational support for their children. In other words, merely establishing that there is a difference in graduation rates does not explain the difference.

There are, of course, other, more ideological concerns with voucher programs. One is that public funding of private schools siphons money away from the public schools, resulting in their further deterioration. Of course, conservatives often push for voucher programs precisely because they want to diminish the public domain more generally; smaller public school systems result in less significant state and local governments. But the other conservative motivation for voucher schools is the fact that they can be directly affiliated with religions in a way that public schools constitutionally cannot be. This raises an important – and surprisingly unsettled – constitutionality question, as this article at the ADL site suggests-

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.” Yet voucher programs would do just that; they would force citizens — Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists — to pay for the religious indoctrination of school children at schools with narrow parochial agendas.

Of course, Wisconsin’s supreme court ruled in 1999 that vouchers are constitutional: “We conclude that the [voucher program] does not violate the Establishment Clause because it has a secular purpose, it will not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and it will not lead to excessive entanglement between the state and participating sectarian private schools,” Judge Donald Steinmetz wrote for the majority. The SCOTUS subsequently refused to review the case, allowing the Wisconsin ruling to stand (without explicitly endorsing it). But, as this helpful article at the Freedom Forum mentions, it’s far from obvious whether present and future voucher expansions in various states will, in the end, hold up to constitutionality challenges-

In 1992, Mary Ann Glendon, a constitutional scholar and professor at Harvard University, wrote that “the Supreme Court’s religion-clause case law has now reached the state where it is described on all sides, and even by the justices themselves, as hopelessly confused, inconsistent, and incoherent.”

Have such matters changed much at the highest levels of jurisprudence in the last 20 years? Given the ambivalence towards religion that founders like Thomas Jefferson quite clearly had, it would be surprising if they had.

Video Ideas For Senator Ron Johnson

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Dear Senator Ron Johnson-

I read in the Oshkosh Northwestern (our hometown newspaper) today that, as part of your official duties as a U.S. Senator, you are producing videos of people that have been harmed by government intrusion or red tape. The paper went on to describe the subject of your first video, the sad story of Steve Lathrop, “a man who bought an old dump in a flood plain and converted it into a lake to prevent future flooding”…

The nearly three-minute video says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers subsequently threatened Lathrop with fines and jail time unless he converted the land back because the Army Corps had designated the area as wetlands. The video said the Corps of Engineers also referred Lathrop to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for prosecution, but the EPA declined to charge him. Lathrop instead planned to follow EPA guidelines to create new wetlands on the adjacent farm, which required a permit. The permit still has not arrived from the Corps of Engineers even though Lathrop applied for it 14 years ago, the video said.

Johnson is inviting people who watch the first video to click on a link and share other stories that could provide the basis for future installments.

Waiting for a permit for 14 years! What an injustice! How intrusive!!

Well, if you really want to expose intrusive government, there’s really no need to wait for people to click on your link. There are 305 stories just begging to be publicized over at The Innocence Project. These are stories not of people that have been waiting for a permit (to do something that they apparently don’t want to do anyway), but rather of people that have been convicted by the government of crimes they did not commit, and as a result have rotted away in prison for, in some cases, over thirty years. I suggest you direct your keen eye for intrusive government at them; here are a few of the most egregious cases to get you started-

Last Name First Name State Year Convicted Year Exonerated
Bain James FL 1974 2009
Peacock Freddie NY 1976 2010
Diamond Garry VA 1977 2013
Evans Michael IL 1977 2003
Terry Paul IL 1977 2003
Barbour Bennett VA 1978 2012
Gray David A. IL 1978 1999
Gray Paula IL 1978 2002
McKinney Lawrence TN 1978 2009
Moore Curtis Jasper VA 1978 2008

Lest We Forget…

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On this synchrodipitous [adj. derived from ‘synchronic’ and ‘serendipitous’] confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President Obama’s second inauguration, let us not forget how recently the events recorded below occurred, nor how history tends to repeat itself when forgotten…

Featuring a super-funky-bluesy-gospelly version of “Eyes On The Prize” by Ms. Mavis Staples. Take it, Mavis-

(Thanks Berry)

Liberal Cuts To Government Spending?

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As the “fiscal cliff” looms unthreateningly, media hype notwithstanding, I’ve been wondering if liberals like me have ever suggested broad government spending cuts. I’m sure they have, somewhere, but you rarely see any in the mainstream media doing so, and a quick google search shows only one prominent blog post that even comes close to qualifying: Derek Thompson’s “The Liberal Case For Cutting Domestic Spending“, on Ezra Klein’s blog-

You don’t see many liberal economists writing about the best places to cut domestic spending in the next few years. But maybe they should be — if only for the selfish reason that it might clear the way for their spending ideas. When I asked Adam Hersh, an economist from the Center for American Progress, to identify some non-security discretionary items he could part with in exchange for infrastructure money, he acknowledged that the pickings might be slim. But there are still pickings.

“You could shift spending from activities with low stimulating multipliers to higher job multipliers — like shifting timber subsidies toward infrastructure and R&D,” Hersh said. Cut farm subsidies, eliminate duplicate and wasteful domestic programs, and throw in the president’s promise to freeze non-security discretionary spending and federal wages, and you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that could offset spending projects under the conservative House’s cut-go rules. Who knows if this would lure Republicans across the aisle. But what’s the harm in identifying cuts that would make important initiatives more palatable to moderates?

I have nothing against such neutral ways of shifting spending from less to more productive programs, but it seems to me that liberals should be able to identify a lot of government spending that could be cut outright. Here are just a few ideas (including ones involving the military), each of which I’m willing to be convinced would not work or should not be done-

1) Cut military programs (e.g., big-ticket weapons systems that the Pentagon has said it does not need or want). The concern about displaced military-industrial workers could be eased by providing modest tax credits for converting military factories to more productive uses. And, of course, close unnecessary bases overseas, and try to avoid being drawn into endless conflicts.

2) End the war on drugs (a no-brainer, dude). This would also cut the prison-industrial complex. Shift resources to less expensive medical treatment options for drug-abusing addicts.

3) Cut subsidies to Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and any other industry that is obviously self-sufficient.

4) Cut Homeland Security. I’m all for a strong Intelligence community, but does anyone really believe that, since 9/11, there has been no serious waste and duplication of effort in this area?

5) Drastically simplify the tax code. Doing so should reduce the size of the IRS, and free up private resources for more productive uses than tax-minimization, thereby increasing revenues. This is an issue liberals should champion just as loudly as conservatives (if not more so, since the current tax system has been constructed by special interests with the money to lobby Congress and give big donations to candidates).

6) Control medical costs directly. Anyone who has ever looked at a medical bill knows that the price of medical goods and services is ridiculously high. The Affordable Care Act already limits the profits that medical insurance companies can make. Next, pass a law to limit the profits of medical equipment suppliers, drug companies, and perhaps hospitals. (I’m leaving medical personnel off this list, but only because we presently need to encourage more people to enter those professions). This would significantly reduce Medicare and Medicaid expenses, and hence spending. (I realize that profits have to be high enough to encourage private R&D, but particularly over the next thirty or forty years of baby-boom retirement, these sectors should be highly profitable even under reasonable controls).

7) Increase the age of Medicare eligibility by a year or two. I know this is not a respectable suggestion in some liberal circles, but it seems to me a reasonable response to the projected Medicare deficit and significantly increasing life-spans. If The Affordable Care Act is properly implemented, most seniors could probably afford to purchase private medical insurance for at least a couple of years, and those who couldn’t should be eligible for subsidies.

8) Election reform. Limit election seasons to a month or so, by law, and limit candidates’ election fund-raising to a couple of months prior to the (shortened) election season. This might make politicians more productive, and hence save the tax-payer a little money. Also, to decrease the cost of elections and increase access, develop secure ways of voting via the internet (if and only if doing so is technically feasible).

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, and there are probably problems with each of them that I haven’t recognized (not the least of which being the lack of political will to see them realized). But surely there are hundreds of other sensible cuts liberals could propose, and thereby help to counter the conservative charge that liberals just want Big Government. Suggestions, anyone?

Double Entendre?

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Is it just me, or, given the recent news about General Patraeus’s resignation, does the title of Paula Broadwell’s glowing biography of the general – “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus” – take on a whole new meaning?

Yeah, I know: it’s just me.

A Reasonable Republican

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I’ve had some pretty harsh things to say about Republicans on this blog over the last few years. Mostly I’ve been distressed by their apparently willful ignorance of plain facts and/or their pandering to the most uninformed, prejudiced, and superstitious among us. But as the 2012 election season comes (thankfully!) to a negative-ad-encrusted close, it is refreshing to see comments such as the following from Republican State Senator Mike Ellis in today’s Oshkosh Northwestern

State Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said partisanship in the Legislature stems from campaign money. “The interest groups have their tentacles over the Democrats. They have their tentacles over the Republicans,” he said.

Ellis, 71, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1970, said he raised about $55,000 for his 1982 state Senate campaign – all from his district. “There were no third-party (groups), there were none of those so-called issue ads back then,” he said. Ellis said today, millions of dollars have taken over the independence of the candidates. “They are deciding what the issues are and they are painting, in a negative way, what the message is, and that is a crime against our democracy,” he said.

Ellis said the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that government couldn’t restrict political expenditures of unions and corporations, has resulted in groups inundating airwaves with false and anonymous messages. “The Supreme Court,” Ellis said, “has put a dagger right through the basic principal of a democracy, that elected people should be accountable to their constituents, not national, multi-state special interest groups … who will be back three months from now demanding that you vote for a piece of crap because they got you elected.”

I haven’t looked at Ellis’s voting record, and I’m guessing that I would disagree with him about a great many economic and social issues. But in the spirit of bipartisan compromise, which will be more necessary than ever after November 6th, kudos to Senator Ellis for expressing at least implicit agreement with President Obama on a prime cause of our current political malaise.

Is Paul Ryan A Deist?

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…Or is he just ignorant of the founders’ theological influences?

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much about the current Presidential race. That’s because I tend to get interested in political races – in a writerly way – only when there is some sort of logical or philosophical issue to discuss, and, let’s face it, this campaign hasn’t exactly been rich in philosophical content. Lately, however, Paul Ryan’s standard stump speech has often included the following sort of statement, which he also has made on the floor of the House:

“Our founders got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.”

Ryan is certainly correct that the founders used the phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the first paragraph of the Declaration-

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

But it was Ryan’s own emphasis on nature and “nature’s God” that got my attention. In Jefferson’s day, the phrase was strongly associated with the Enlightenment doctrine of Deism. Here’s a brief outline of the view from the (always enlightening) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher.

That Jefferson himself was a Deist is pretty clearly stated in a letter he wrote to his friend, William Short-

“…it is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, of so much absurdity, so much untruth and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” [“Letter to William Short, 13 April 1820” The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Andrew Lipscomb. Hershey: Pennsylvania State University, 1907. p. 244.]

Now, I’m no historian (and if I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know), but I would expect someone in Ryan’s position to be more of one. Could it be that he is unaware of the Deism inherent in the phrase he’s constantly trotting out on the campaign trail? Or, despite his professed Catholicism, could he be a “secret Deist” himself (a possibility that seems far less unlikely – thanks to the lack of any necessary outward manifestations of the theology – than the “Sekrit Muslim” charge made against President Obama)? Deism is not currently widespread, partly because it turns out to be surprisingly hard (impossible?) to prove God’s existence by “the light of reason” alone. So there’s a natural tendency for Deism to evolve or devolve either into Fideism (which rejects the role of rationality in religion in favor of non-rational faith) or Atheism. Ryan’s perhaps inadvertent endorsement of Deism is inconsistent with both Catholicism and Atheism (the view of his intellectual heroine, Ayn Rand). But since logical inconsistency would be more troubling than simple ignorance, perhaps it would be most charitable to charge Ryan only with the latter.

Republican Postmodernism

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Time was when Republicans decried the “postmodernism” they believed pervaded American Universities, by which they meant, I think, a sort of broad cultural relativism. Postmodernism, as I understand the core of it (which is very little), takes a dim view of any notion of objective truth; all beliefs, whether ethical or scientific, should stand or fall on pragmatic grounds, if on any grounds at all. But now Republicans seem to have adopted just such a postmodernist stance when it comes Mitt Romney’s political campaign. As reported by Buzzfeed

Mitt Romney’s aides explained with unusual political bluntness today why they are spending heavily — and ignoring media criticism — to air an add accusing President Barack Obama of “gutting” the work requirement for welfare, a marginal political issue since the mid-1990s that Romney pushed back to center stage.

“Our most effective ad is our welfare ad,” a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O’Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. “It’s new information.”

The welfare ad has been the center of intense dispute, with Democrats accusing Romney of unearthing old racial ghosts and Romney pointing out that the Obama Administration has offered states waivers that could, in fact, lighten work requirements in welfare, a central issue in Bill Clinton’s 1996 revamping of public assistance.

The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” awarded Romney’s ad “four Pinocchios,” a measure Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismissed.

“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he said.

I don’t always agree with fact checkers myself; no one is infallible, and no one is completely unbiased. But some people value rationality and objectivity (those old-fashioned modernist notions) more than others, and strive to achieve them by at least trying to base their beliefs on well-verified evidence. The Romney campaign should dispute fact-checkers all they like, but they should dispute them with logical argument and counter-evidence, not with only a pragmatic or political end in mind.

News Flash: Senate Democrats Grow Brain Cells, Realize The Obvious

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Or: how to raise taxes on the rich without really trying, as reported by the New York Times

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats — holding firm against extending tax cuts for the rich — are proposing a novel way to circumvent the Republican pledge not to vote for any tax increase: Allow all the tax cuts to expire Jan. 1, then vote on a tax cut for the middle class shortly thereafter.

The proposal illustrates the lengths lawmakers are going to in an effort to include new federal revenues in a fix for the “fiscal cliff,” the reckoning in January that would come when all Bush-era tax cuts expire and automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs kick in.

Virtually every Republican in Congress has taken the pledge, pushed by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, never to vote for a tax increase — a pledge both parties see as a serious impediment to a tax compromise. But if tax rates snap back to the levels of the Clinton presidency on Jan. 1, any legislation to reinstate some of those tax cuts — but not all of them — would be considered a tax cut.

“Many Republicans are starting to realize something important: On Jan. 1, if we haven’t gotten to a deal, Grover Norquist and his pledge are no longer relevant to this conversation,” Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, said this week in a speech at the Brookings Institution. “We will have a new fiscal and political reality.”

This is a “novel way” to proceed? It’s been the painfully obvious way to proceed ever since the end of 2010; I can’t believe that it’s been anything but the default Democratic strategy since then.

Texas GOP Officially Opposes Critical Thinking!?

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On page 12 of the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 Platform you will find the following rather astounding statement-

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Since I have no idea what the jargon “values clarification” and “mastery learning” mean, I’m hoping that this plank of the platform does not mean what it seems to. Could they really be opposed to the teaching of critical thinking skills, or do they mean something by that phrase other than what it standardly means (e.g., learning (1) how to logically analyze the structure of an argument and (2) how to evaluate its form and content)?

Why Do Conservatives Fear Gay Marriage?

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Since President Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage, and the ensuing backlash from the Right, a question has been bugging me…

Just why do many people – particularly religious conservatives – fear gay marriage, especially when they seem willing to at least tolerate the legality of gay behavior? I realize that looking for reasons in a case like this is often bound to produce only frustration, but it might be interesting to catalog at least the sorts of explanations those who fear same-sex marriage usually set forth.

A common explanation cites the biblical condemnation of gay behavior as an “abomination”. A problem with this explanation is that, presumably, gay people in our society will engage in gay sex whether they are married or not; there is no reason to think that preventing them from marrying results in less gay sex, and at least some reason to think that it actually results in more gay sex, and hence in more “abomination”. Surely adopting policies that keep gay sex more promiscuous than it might otherwise be isn’t a very effective way of pleasing God!

There are, of course, many other arguments against gay marriage, including an obvious instance of the slippery slope fallacy and various economic concerns, all of which are easy to debunk, as this article by Tom Head rather effortlessly demonstrates: “10 Really Bad Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage…“.

As you can see from that article, theological arguments against same-sex marriage apparently all have countervailing theological arguments, and the empirical arguments – alleging deleterious effects on society, children, or straight marriage – have no evidential support that stands up to even the most cursory scrutiny. This fact, of course, provided the basis of Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s famous decision that California’s Proposition 8 violated the Equal Protection clause. If you’ve never read Judge Walker’s decision, you can read it here. Here’s the conclusion, after 135 pages of careful legal reasoning-

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Now, putting aside the technical legal arguments, perhaps the most common argument against legally recognizing same-sex unions is that “normalizing” such unions would result in their becoming more common, and that this would devalue or diminish heterosexual marriage. Such arguments often use analogical reasoning, and the sorts of analogies that come to mind in this context might include devaluation of the dollar (via inflation) by printing more dollars, or diminishing the quality of a wine by diluting it with water. Such analogies are obviously weak: the value of a particular marriage has nothing to do with the overall number of marriages, and producing more wine, even a new category of wine, does not dilute other bottles of wine. This is true even if those new bottles of wine are diluted relative to the others (as conservatives argue gay marriages are less valuable than straight marriages). Of course, if the new category of wine were diluted, then the average quality of all of the wine in the world would be diminished. But surely the value of marriage, in the only sense that has practical consequences, depends on the value of each marriage, and on the additive effects of those marriages on society – not on any merely theoretical average number. So… just how could expanding the category of marriage to include a new “vintage” devalue the other, pre-existing vintage? Well, only if the new vintage were perceived to be better

Could this be the correct explanation of the fear? Could it be that conservatives (subconsciously?) believe that if same-sex marriage were to become more accepted and hence more common, heterosexuals would actually begin converting their sexual orientation? Could conservatives really (subconsciously?) believe that gay sex is so much better than straight sex, or that switching one’s sexual preference is, at least for most people, as easy as switching brands? It sounds silly, but you do often hear conservatives fantasizing about gay folks – especially teachers – “recruiting” children who would otherwise be straight, as if changing or determining someone’s sexual orientation – even a child’s – were as easy as giving them the right sales pitch!

I’m sure that there are plenty considerations I’ve missed, including some that might buck up the conservative case against gay marriage. It is true, for instance, that legally recognizing gay marriage would be a social experiment whose long term consequences are not entirely predictable. What is disappointing is that in the very next breath, conservatives are likely to deny the much more predictable and clearly dire consequences of that other “social experiment” in which we’ve been engaged for a hundred years: dumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since changing marriage law would be a lot easier than repairing the atmosphere, I’d much rather experiment with same-sex marriage than with global warming.

Anyway, I’m just asking the question; I haven’t settled on any answer. So if you feel like venturing an opinion, I’d love to hear it. The comments are open.

Governor Walker’s “Divide And Conquer” Strategy

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Governor Walker has claimed since the beginning of his term that he’s not interested in reducing the power of private unions in Wisconsin; his only concern, he said, was with the budgetary impact that collective bargaining agreements with public unions had. Now there’s a video – raw footage from Brad Lichtenstein’s documentary to be entitled “As Goes Janesville” – that seems to prove that his true intention has always been to just start with public-sector unions as a first step towards weakening private-sector unions as well. As reported by JSOnline, where you can view the video for yourself

In the video, [Beloit billionaire Diane] Hendricks told Walker she wanted to discuss “controversial” subjects away from reporters, asking him:

“Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions -”

“Oh, yeah,” Walker broke in.

“- and become a right-to-work?” Hendricks continued. “What can we do to help you?”

“Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill,” Walker said. “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”

The entire conversation was not released Thursday with a video trailer of the documentary, but Journal Sentinel reporters were allowed to view the raw footage.

“So for us,” the governor continues, “the base we get for that is the fact that we’ve got – budgetarily we can’t afford not to. If we have collective bargaining agreements in place, there’s no way not only the state but local governments can balance things out. . . . That opens the door once we do that. That’s your bigger problem right there.”

Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation in 1993 as a freshman in the state Assembly, but as governor has consistently downplayed seeking any restrictions on private unions in public statements.

“This is another colossal bait and switch that goes directly to his honesty,” [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Barrett said. “What he claims he is not in favor of publicly, to the person who has made the largest contribution in state history, he says exactly the opposite. You can’t trust him.”

Barrett has been hammering Walker on right-to-work legislation for weeks, frequently using the phrase “divide and conquer.” Barrett said he used that term because he believed that was Walker’s strategy, but did not know until Thursday that Walker himself had used it.

In the 2010 campaign, Walker won the support of Operating Engineers Local 139, a union that represents about 9,000 heavy equipment operators in Wisconsin. The union is not endorsing anyone in this year’s recall election.

Terry McGowan, the union’s business manager, said the union gave its 2010 endorsement only after getting assurances Walker would not pursue right-to-work legislation. The union backed Walker because of his support for road building done by the group’s members, McGowan said.

He said Thursday he was troubled by the footage of Walker with Hendricks, but that he was continuing to take Walker at his word given his public statements and conversations he has had with him. “You don’t hear him say, ‘Yes, I’m going to go after right-to-work legislation,’ ” McGowan said of the video. But he added that divide and conquer is a phrase that is anathema to those in the labor movement. “It means turning worker against worker,” he said.

Because Walker faces a recall, a quirk in state law allowed supporters such as Hendricks for a time to donate unlimited sums to the governor’s campaign for certain expenses. Last month, Hendricks contributed $500,000 to Walker, bringing her total donations to him to $519,100 and the donations by her and [her husband] Ken to all candidates to more than $1 million.

Of course, it’s really no surprise that Walker, like the rest of the GOP, is ultimately after all of organized labor. But it’s nice to catch a politician telling the truth, even if only to a billionaire donor.

By the way, I’m not dogmatic about the benefits of unionization. It’s an empirical question whether workers are economically better off with or without unions, and I’ve seen apparently strong, statistical arguments on both sides. At the very least, it seems that if unions are to be economically relevant in the future, they need to focus on training and re-training, partnering with new technology rather than hedging against it.

Quite apart from the economic question, there is the dignity issue: the right of workers to organize for the purpose of negotiating with their managers seems as important to a free society as the right of citizens to peaceably assemble or petition their government for redress of grievances. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur or a professional. Especially in jobs where workers are easily replaced, it seems that only well-run unions can insure that workers have a meaningful voice in the enterprises to which they devote their lives.

Wisconsin Primary Results Indicate GOP Mischief

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Machiavelli – at least as he might popularly be misconceived – must be grinning in his grave…

The Wisconsin Republican Party backed six “fake democrat” candidates in yesterday’s primary election: Gladys Huber, Isaac Weix, Gary Ellerman, Tamra Lyn Varebrook, James Engel and James Buckley. None won, but, with the exception of Gladys Huber in the governor’s race, they each received a significant number of votes: their percentages ranged from 26-36%. Perhaps most disturbingly, Isaac Weix received 26% of the vote for Lieutenant Governor – that’s 197,052 apparently Republican votes in a statewide Democratic primary! Almost as notable was Jim Buckley’s taking 36% of the vote against Donna Seidel in State Senate District 29; Buckley is the guy from outside the district who seriously insisted that he was running to prevent Donna Seidel and George Soros from forming a Nazi-Communist world government (really, I’m not exaggerating).

You can find all of the election results here.

By the way, in my last post I quoted from Adam Rodewald’s investigative story in Monday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, and promised a link to it. Here it is. In a strange twist of policy for such a front-page headline story, the powers that be at the Northwestern immediately buried the story in the newspaper’s archive, rather than follow the paper’s usual practice of electronically re-publishing it on the paper’s main web site. I emailed Rodewald about not finding the story in the usual online location, and he seemed surprised; in his reply, he wrote-

“I’m not sure what happened to that story. I can’t find it either. I am looking into it and will let you know if and when the link is restored.”

I haven’t heard anything more from him, but if I do, I’ll update this post. As it stands, it’s hard to resist inferring that the paper’s departure from its usual practice was the result of political influence. But… resist… I… must…!